Working the ‘Graveyard’ Shift

The view on top of the hill.

Siaw Chow Jin has been in the cemetery service industry for 16 years. Despite working amidst the place that is often portrayed as paranormal, he says there is nothing to be afraid of.

Nothing Ghostly About Working in a Cemetery

A graveyard is a place where the dead are laid to rest. It is often portrayed as a place where the paranormal happens. Hence, cultural beliefs always have a list of taboos to follow whenever one visits the grave.

Here are some of the taboos I believe one is familiar with: 

  • Don’t look back when you want to go home,
  • Don’t pick up flowers at the graveyard, and
  • Don’t respond when your name is called.

Recalling his childhood, Siaw Chow Jin says whenever he came home after a visit to the cemetery, his Hakka family would cleanse their bodies with a herb called mak chao (Anisomeles indica) — a practice to ward off spirits.

The Sarawak Nirvana Memorial Park executive director says he no longer does it. “If I do, I need to grow a jungle of mak chao just to cleanse myself.”

Siaw adds that despite working in the industry, he isn’t superstitious. “I just respect everything; from the deceased to their families. As long as there is a positive attitude, there won’t be a problem.”

But what keeps him on his toes isn’t ghosts, rather thieves instead. “There were several cases of thefts as our site office is located here. There is also the donation money in the temple that is worrisome.”

A nightly routine

Abu

The cemetery at Bau is guarded by a retired soldier. A Bidayuh man, Abu’s job requires him to stay at the graveyard from the evening until the next morning. Having worked with Nirvana for almost two decades, the 69-year-old would come in at 4pm. “When the site office closes at 5pm, I will check if the switches are off, then lock the door. Then I will patrol the whole site every hour on my bike.”

On days when there are grave visits, Abu would assist the patrons by setting up the canopy and anything necessary. Recalling his days working at the cemetery, the guard revealed that he isn’t scared of the supernatural. “Working at the graveyard is just like working at other places. I go to work, I come home. Everything is routine. After all, I’m just looking to earn a wage.”

Despite spending his nights among the tombs, Abu says he has never come across anything odd. “However, there was one time when a patron whose father had just passed away visited at 2am. He was drunk, so I just let him in. Then he slept by the grave. An hour later, he woke up, realising where he was, he became shocked and screamed for help.”

A job in the industry

Manning the office in Kuching, Siaw said he often receives calls from his customers. “They would ring our office up, and tell me they dreamed of their late parents, or ancestors telling them something is blocking their tomb, or their site is dirty.”

Nirvana’s Master Feng Shui will issue a talisman for those who works at Nirvana and are afraid of any apparition.

“Ah boy, ah girl, you come to visit me ah, my plot very dirty,” were the usual words sent by the deceased to the younger generation. “I don’t know how this works. But once they call, we will confirm it. Then we will work accordingly. If it’s dirty, we will clean it. If there is a tree blocking the view, then we will chop it down,” he says.

To Siaw, the graveyard is nothing scary. Throughout his 16 years in the industry, he hasn’t seen any apparition, nor experienced anything mysterious. On the contrary, adventurous by nature, he is rather excited to be able to work in the industry. “There is nothing to be afraid of. However, our company’s Master Fengshui does provide protective talismans for those who are frightened.”

Sharing further, Siaw remembered an incident that happened to one of his staff members. “Many years ago, there was a person who had died in an apartment and was left there for almost a week. The body had decayed. After my staff cremated the body, the pungent odour remained. He also felt heavy on the shoulder, as if something was pushing him down.”

“Noticing something amiss, his mother sought the help of a shaman. Everything is good now, and he still works for Nirvana,” says Siaw.

Good burial plot

Established in 2001, the Nirvana Memorial Park’s land perched atop the hill at Bau was found to have a good feng shui for the dead to rest.

Siaw says it took two years in the late 90s to search for a perfect site. “We engaged with a few feng shui masters in regards to this, as according to Chinese custom, we can’t simply choose a site. This is a taboo that they believe can affect the coming generations.”

Although Nirvana houses burial plots for different ethnic groups in Sarawak, Siaw reveals that the Chinese are the most particular. “They will ask the masters to calculate the best direction for them. Many believe that the best site will benefit them in the future. In feng shui, they believe that if an ancestor is buried in the correct place, it could turn the son, or grandson a billionaire or emperor.”

The current cost for a burial plot at Nirvana is RM21,388 for a single plot with a tombstone. As for the cost of cremation, an urn and an urn compartment cost RM5,088.

In 2011, Nirvana introduced a pet cemetery due to demands. “We get clients asking to be buried together with their pets. But according to Chinese taboo, pets cannot be buried with humans. So, we decided to dedicate a plot just for it.”

A pet urn compartment costs between RM1,980 and RM2,680, excluding other costs.

Nirvana introduces pet cremation, urn compartments and burial plots due to high demands.

Demand for plots during pandemic

It is without a doubt the COVID-19 pandemic had caused a chain reaction in many ways. In the cemetery service industry, business has been picking up. According to Siaw, most of the purchases made are not for the dead, rather for those still living. 

“Most of my clients came and said they saved a lot during the movement control order (MCO) as travelling, shopping and dining were restricted. Furthermore, the pandemic reminded them of life and death.”

Siaw says many had pre-purchased their burial plot. “More than 80 per cent of our clients pre-purchase. With that decision, they can choose their final home themselves. Usually, the children will want to be buried close to their parents. They will buy earlier to book a plot next to them.”

He also adds that many also booked for their grandchildren. “We have clients who purchase a huge plot to cater up to 50 persons.” To these families, it will be easier to conduct prayers and rituals in the future.

“Buying earlier also has its advantages. Clients can pay by instalment. It is part of their financial planning too. Otherwise, there will be a financial burden once they die.”

That said, Siaw reveals the current site for Nirvana has limited burial grounds. “We are currently running out of plots as we had not expected the high demand after the MCO.”

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